Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 8 April 2020

Karter Zaher on emerging from self-imposed exile: 'Some things are not easy to get over'

The Canadian artist speaks to Saeed Saeed about moving forward after the bitter and public split of his former group

Karter Zaher is embarking on a solo career. Courtesy Karter Zaher
Karter Zaher is embarking on a solo career. Courtesy Karter Zaher

Karter Zaher is ready to call his own tune.

Not that he really has a choice. The popular hip-hop duo he co-founded, Deen Squad, broke up last May amidst a slew of public accusations ranging from mismanagement and personal betrayal.

The bitter fallout saw Deen Squad cease to exist and close its social media accounts (which had amassed over two million followers collectively), with former collaborators, rapper Jae Deen and manager Sami Abboud going off to start the new collective Deen Starz.

Whoever is at fault, the band’s demise is a blow for the Muslim hip-hop scene. From their often brilliant “halal cover versions” of modern hip-hop hits such as Muslim Queen and Allah Loves You (their take on Fetty Wap’s Trap Queen and DJ Snake’s Let Me Love You) to original tunes On my Deen and Ramadan Kareem, Deen Squad went on to play a major role in showcasing the global appeal of the genre.

Such was their star power, the group also nabbed the prized slot of supporting Justin Bieber in his sold-out show at the Dubai’s Sevens Stadium in 2017.

In his first major interview addressing the split, singer and rapper Zaher admits he is yet to fully recover from the ordeal. After releasing a YouTube video lamenting how he was “kicked out of the group,” – which resulted in a similarly heated response by Jay Dean – he went offline and took solace in the company of family and friends in his home city of Ontario, Canada.

“Some things are not easy to get over, bro,” he admits. “It’s nearly eight months since it went down and I really had to step back, realign my myself and my vision and get myself a new team.”

And good lawyers. One thing Zaher learned from Deen Squad’s demise, and his advice to all artists, is to get your paper work in order.

“I love my team and I trust them, but you need to have all those contracts in place and make sure everybody has a clear role,” he says. “Those agreements are important because at the end of the day it protects all of us and keeps us motivated.”

It also provided the mental clarity that eluded Zaher during the last few months of Deen Squad. When the group began back in 2014, it was just him and Jay Deen recording videos on their phone. Once it became an international juggernaut, which also included a string of EPs and a clothing line, he says the creative vigour initially responsible for the group’s success was gone.

It was something Zaher was keen to bring back with the low-key launch of his solo career in 2020. Over the past two months he has released six solo tracks and three videos showcasing a new sound that's more introspective and club friendly.

The latest song, MashaAllah, is a case in point: it is a trap-pop number that eschews the moralising lyrics that characterised so much of Deen Squad’s work. It is a risky move, Zaher admits, but it was necessary in order to forge a new path forward. Where Deen Squad's lyrics had a missionary zeal, Zaher's wordplay is more subtle, yet equally reflective.

“I had to do that because I am not trying to recreate that Dean Squad sound. That was so powerful and there is no point trying to outdo what Deen Squad did,” he says. “I am creating work that reflects my culture and part of that is my religion. Where in Deen Squad it was about bringing Islam to the youth, with my own career I want to build fans through my character.”

For that to happen, Zaher needs to remerge from his self-imposed exile. When asked when he plans to perform his first solo show, he says it will happen once he has accumulated enough solo songs.

“I am not taking show requests at the moment,” he says. “When I [do] it will be with my own songs and not any of Deen Squad’s stuff. I am just waiting until I have a full album and at least 10 songs. Then I will go back to performing.”

While it all points at an exciting period ahead for Zaher, it doesn’t overcome the sense of loss that permeates nearly all of his responses. When asked if Deen Squad could ever reunite once sufficient time has passed, Zaher’s response is achingly honest.

“I feel like the damage has already been done and it is so big that I don’t have it in my heart to answer that question,” he said. “Obviously the Prophet Mohammed has taught us a lot about forgiveness and that is something I am working hard to practise. But sometimes in life there are certain lines that are crossed that are is very difficult to forgive.”

Updated: March 22, 2020 11:24 AM

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